A study confirms that curiosity is a key factor for learning.
A study published in the journal Neuron states that curiosity is beneficial for learning. According to this research, it is easier for people to memorize and retain information on those topics that are curious to them, because this state of intrinsic motivation increases the activity of the midbrain, the nucleus accumbens and the hippocampus (brain areas related to learning, memory and the repetition of pleasant behaviors).
Although many of us have already experienced it, these findings could help scientists find new ways to improve learning and memory, and could provide new educational strategies for teachers.
The relationship between curiosity and learning is not new
That we learn faster about those topics that arouse our interest and our curiosity is not new. Surely, when a person says “that she does not like or that she is not curious about what she studies”, she will have difficulties to carry out a good learning. In fact, we learn much better through meaningful learning. But this research provides information on how curiosity is related to brain function and how intrinsic motivation affects learning.
Matthias Gruber and his collaborators carried out the research at the University of California and found that when we are curious about something, our mind not only absorbs what interests us, but we also memorize the data surrounding the subject of our interest, and which at first is alien to the object of curiosity. On the other hand, the researchers also concluded that the hippocampus, which helps with memory formation, becomes more activated when we show more interest.
Nucleus accumbens: motivation, pleasure and learning
One area of the brain involved with motivation and repetition of pleasurable behaviors is the nucleus accumbens (which is part of the reward system). It is found in both hemispheres, and receives input from various brain centers related to emotions (amygdala and hypothalamus) and memory (emotional, procedural and declarative). In addition, it receives dopaminergic inputs from the ventral tegmental area and motor areas of the cortex. The presence of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens facilitates long-term memory and learning.
But the nucleus accumbens is also related to motivation, and curiosity triggers the activation of the reward circuit (of which the nucleus accumbens is a part). Guber states: “We have shown that intrinsic motivation actually recruits the same areas of the brain that are heavily involved in tangible extrinsic motivation.”
On the other hand, as other investigations had concluded in the past, to activate the nucleus accumbens it is necessary for the event to be novel and unexpected (which does not match the information we have stored in memory). After this research, it seems that curiosity, which can be understood as the search for novelty or the desire to know or find out something, also activates it.
Study data and conclusions
To carry out the study, 19 students were recruited to rate more than 100 trivia questions, indicating their degree of curiosity (from 0 to 6) and their perception of self-confidence in answering them correctly.
The scientists then measured each subject’s brain activity using an imaging technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Meanwhile, on a screen, each participant was shown the questions they rated as curious or not curious, and each question took 14 seconds to appear. In this time interval, images of faces with a facial expression that had nothing to do with the questions appeared.
Later the students answered these questions and, in addition, they were given a pop quiz in which they had to remember the faces. The results indicated that the subjects remembered the faces in 71% of the cases in which they had classified the question as curious. In contrast, in the questions that were rated as non-curious, only 54% of the faces were recalled. Something that did not surprise anyone.
But what did surprise the researchers is that when analyzing the face recognition test, the more curious the participants had evaluated a photo (from 0 to 6), the more expensive they remembered. Furthermore, even though the faces were unrelated to the questions, they memorized them even 24 hours later.
In summary, after the study, the researchers stated that:
- The state of curiosity helps to improve learning, as we memorize topics that are more interesting to us (even if they are more difficult).
- When “the state of curiosity” is activated in our brain, we are able to retain information, even incidental material (the one about which we are not so curious at first).
- The state of curiosity activates in our brain the nucleus accumbens and the midbrain (areas involved in learning, memory, motivation and the reinforcement of pleasant behaviors) and the hippocampus.
- The material we learn when our brain is activated in this way lasts much longer, leading to meaningful learning.